Brooklyn, New York; 13 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Kimi Abernathy is a counselor for disadvantaged children and a mother of four boys.
But in 1997, she decided to bring a new child into her life -- and began the process of adopting a baby from an orphanage in Azerbaijan.
"I have four birth children, so my youngest is adopted. Getting a birth child is a leap of faith, but with an adopted child you don’t know their medical heritage, you don’t know if the birth mother was drinking when she was pregnant with the baby," Abernathy said. "So I think you need to be a well-prepared adoptive family [that] knows about the possibilities that could occur, and decides what they can and cannot deal with, and then makes an appropriate decision."
Kimi's daughter Inara is a lively 4 1/2-year-old with deep, dark eyes, and shiny black hair that reaches her waist. She is eager for her mother's attention, and pulls impatiently on her arm as Abernathy talks to a reporter.
U.S. adoption of Russian-born babies has been possible for more than a decade. But Azerbaijani-born babies were a different matter. In 2000, Inara became the first Azerbaijani baby to be adopted internationally. She now lives with her parents and four brothers in Nashville, Tennessee.
"Of course our concerns were 'Would the child bond to us? Would he respond to us? Would he be happy and thrive in our home?'"
Abernathy, whose own parents are from Azerbaijan, said the process of adopting Inara was long and difficult. She began by sending e-mail inquiries to then-President Heidar Aliyev and various state ministries.
In the beginning, she said, the response was always negative.
"I e-mailed with [Aliyev]; I didn’t hear back," Abernathy said. "I e-mailed him and e-mailed various other ministries and asked about the possibility of adopting an Azeri child. We were told, 'It’s not going to happen. There will never be an international adoption in Azerbaijan.' This was seven years ago. So this is a very long process for us -- seven or eight years. [And] they just said it is predominantly Muslim country, there is not a culture, a history of [child] adoption."
Abernathy said her family also tried to adopt an Azeri child from a refugee camp in Georgia, but were turned down because of the firm anti-adoption stance of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Ultimately, however, the Abernathy family was contacted by Azeri authorities, asking if they would agree to participate in Azerbaijan's first international adoption.
The process was expensive. Abernathy said the total cost of Inara's adoption and arrival in the United States was $15,000. But she says the joy of having Inara in the family is worth far more.
"I believe strongly that it is important for the children of Azerbaijan to be protected, to be healthy, to have food, clothing, shelter, love, nurturing," Abernathy said. "But there are children who don’t have it."
Other children have followed Inara. Four-year-old Ben came to the United States in 2002 and lives with his adoptive mother, Jane Bottner, in Brooklyn, New York. Andy, who is 3 1/2, also lives in Brooklyn with his new parents, Gina Andriolo and Chuck Contrino.
Andriolo said she and her husband cherish their relationship with Andy.
"Of course our concerns were 'Would the child bond to us? Would he respond to us? Would he be happy and thrive in our home?' Fortunately, we were very lucky," Andriolo said. "The little boy that we adopted in November of 2002, and who was 23 months [old] at the time, is now home 1 1/2 years, and he is doing wonderfully."
The adoptive families of Azerbaijani-born children have formed a close network, sharing their experiences on the Internet and gathering once a year to allow the parents and the children to meet face-to-face.
This year's event took place on 10 July in Brooklyn's Baku Palace restaurant.
Reflecting on her experience in bringing Andy to the United States, Andriolo said families looking to adopt an Azerbaijani child must be prepared for a rigorous procedure that can take several months or more.
"All the people here who have adopted from Azerbaijan and who have brought their children here have gone through very stringent clearances through reputable U.S. agencies," Andriolo said. "We’ve been fingerprinted not only on a federal [U.S.] level but on a local level. We’ve had to give the whole history of where we have lived to see if there have been any arrests or any abuses. Anyone who’s here today has cleared with flying colors, and all the children are in very happy homes."
The U.S. State Department reports that, by the end of 2002, 67 Azeri children were adopted by U.S. families. Kimi Abernathy said there are no between 150 and 175 adopted Azeri children living in the United States.
Andriolo said that although "Baku babies" like Andy may be raised in an American way of life, all the adoptive families are committed to keeping the children aware of their birth heritage.
The Brooklyn celebrations also remembered the plight of parentless children still in Azerbaijan. An auction was held of artwork by Baku schoolchildren and items donated by New York-based Azeri businesses. The profits will help fund therapy programs for children in Baku orphanages.